Review: Making Monsters

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy from Misha Penton, one of the authors in this anthology.

In the preface to Making Monsters, co-editor (with Emma Bridges) Djibril al-Ayad writes

The theme of the book was also a departure for us, tied to a historical (if not cultural) context, bringing together writers with different approaches to fiction and non-fiction—not to mention those who can’t quite keep the two apart!
This blurring of boundaries—genres, cultures, prose and verse, fact and fiction—is something we’ve always looked for with FFN [ Publishing] and The Future Fire magazine. Whether it’s fake book reviews, how-tos disguised as weird fiction, fiction disguised as a how-to/rpg module/film script, ekphrasis, or nonlinear narrative, we love that shit. And here we have a whole book whose embedding in an academic discipline as well as a subgenre of fantasy and horror crosses these boundaries at every turn.

And the boundaries do mix often and easily here. In “Danaë,” a story of steampunk and myth by Megan Arkenberg, the eponymous character creates an automation Perseus, whom she sends to kill Medusa in order to use the Gorgon’s head on her own enemies; L. Chan, in “Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement,” crafts a humorous take on the police procedural in which an agent based in Singapore must relocate two malevolent ghosts–a manananggal and a pontianak–and two less violent ones from their current haunts to new ones. Chan’s story is witty, full of clever references to recent popular Asian horror films and classic ghost stories. I’d love to read more stories from Chan in this setting.

Hannah Silverblank offers a highly entertaining academic-style analysis of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s 2009 single “Telephone,” comparing it with the performances of the sirens in The Odyssey. Readers familiar with both sources will enjoy this essay, but it may require extra reading or research for newcomers to any of the materials Silverblank riffs on here. Hester J. Rook also looks to Greek mythology for “Aeaea on the Seas,” writing from the point of view of Circe, who, bored by putative lover/conquerors, finally takes a new and surprising lover.

H.A. Eilander contributes a poem “To the Gargoyle Army,” asking readers to “take a moment of silence for the monsters who break from suffered violence.” Consider the lives of the monsters, Eilanader writes, and why they must fight the so-called heroes of myth. “Water,” by Danie Ware, is a beautiful prose poem of a story featuring an unreliable narrator–or is he?–and his search for his beloved dog. In “Monsters of the World,” Margrét Helgadóttir selects for her essay a mission:

it is clear to me that the world’s monsters need some sort of a renaissance. I wish to re-establish their dark reputation, to give them a comeback and to let the world know of their real terror. I want to drag them out from the darkest corners, to show how many great monsters we have from all over the world.

And she does a good job with it, teaching or reminding readers that there’s far more out there than vampires and werewolves, as appealing as they are. There is the Inuit Qallupilluk, and there are mermen; there is the Almamula of Argentina, and the Filipino tiyanak. There are forest spirits and the Hawaiian kupua; there are ningens in Antarctica. Seek them out, writers.

Neil James Hudson’s “A Song of Sorrow,” returns readers once again to Greek myth and the sirens, a tale of music and weaponized sound and the power of song to mislead, told through the voices of a siren and a bard; Margaret McLeod, in “Helen of War,” is also Greek-inspired, a short and pithy poem about the titular daughter of Zeus and Leda; and Hûw Steer’s story, “The Vigil of Talos,” a boy of Greece learns that the power of myth is how it can be manipulated, both figuratively and literally.

Valeria Vitale’s protagonist finds themselves on the wrong tour on a visit to an attraction and gets a lesson on creature construction in “The Monster in Your Pocket,” complete with a how-to documented in screenshots, playing with references to maker culture, gothic novels, and Dürer. In “A Heart of Stone,” Tom Johnstone’s epistolary story, a young woman on a trip through Europe and the Middle East meditates on her past at a convent, Athena’s punishment of Medusa, and the castle of Otranto, ultimately revealing her new power and her use of it on those who abused her. “The Banshee,” by Alexandra Grunberg, gives that Irish ghost a beautifully-written narrative of her own, explaining the feeling that draws her to the soon-to-die. Barbara Davies’s “The Giulia Effect” is set on Capri, where a journalist interviews a singer and finds that she is quite different from what he expected. Liz Gloyn’s essay “Caught in Medusa’s Gaze: Why does the ancient monster survive in the modern world?” begins by referencing Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa in his stop-motion films from the 1960s, and examines the staying power of the gorgon and other mythical monsters in popular culture.

In “The Eyes Beyond the Hearth,” Catherine Baker, a woman seeks out Medusa, hoping to be transformed into something other than what she is. But she arrives at the same time as Perseus, and, in drinking the blood from a severed snake from Medusa’s head, becomes destined to take Medusa’s place as a new monster. Misha Penton’s “Eclipse” is an atmospheric noir reverie in which a monster assimilated to modern suburban life finds a way to escape that assimilation and revel in her true nature. Well-constructed, it could easily serve as the introduction to a longer piece–and I’d love to read more about its protagonist.

“The Origin of the Different: ‘Gorgos’ and ‘Minotaurs’ of the Aegean Bronze Age,” is another non-fiction contribution to the anthology. Author Maria Anastasiadou considers Medusa and the Minotaur and the use of their images in masks, seals, and other forms of practical art. Valentine Wheeler’s “Justice Is a Noose” also points to Athena’s problematic behavior in Greek myth. In this instance, the goddess has caged the Furies while they testify at Orestes’s trial. When they are denied formal justice, the Furies decide to make their own. Barbara E. Hunt also revisits Greek myth in her poem “Siren Song.” Here she focuses on the historical blame that has been placed on women’s singing, speech, words: sirens, witches, the little mermaid, and implores women to speak up and speak out. Speech also figures in Rachel Bender’s “The Tengu’s Tongue.” Framed as fragments of old documents, this story recounts the life of a violently silenced woman who becomes the host for a clever and sly bird.

Annegret Märten’s “Ecological Angst and Encounters with Scary Flesh” presents a case study of a sea monster that came ashore in Brazil in 1564 and how the concept of monstrosity from the sea is used today. Today believed to have been a seal, the “Meerwunder” or “sea-wonder” is a touchstone figure in excavating the history human interactions with other living creatures, starting during a time in which many believed in the monstrous. In “When Soldiers Come” by Hunter Liguore, Medusa is a sculptor, adapting the stone bodies of those she has transformed when she receives a heartbreaking package and a letter from Perseus, and must make a decision about her own life.

An Afterword by Mathilde Skoie sums up the collection, noting that the monsters of the stories and poems and essays in this book

move in time and space, they move across and beyond boundaries of gender, genre and ethnicity, they move between media, between roles and between meanings; they can move between political agendas, and—as we see in this book—even subvert them; they move their audiences and their views of antiquity.

They are indeed moving, and will move readers of this book.

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